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On Robinson and Mays

February 21, 2012

When people find out that baseball is my favorite sport, I am often asked who is my favorite baseball player. Growing up, my father’s favorite team was the Detroit Tigers. I grew up watching Lou Whitaker and Allan Trammell play the infield, Ron LeFlore and Chet Lemon play the outfield, and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and Jack Morris pitch at the old Tiger Stadium. As a boy, I dreamed of one day playing centerfield for the Tigers. However, though my dream was to play at Tiger stadium, my dream was to play like Willie Mays.

For my money, there never has been a better player than Willie Mays. Mays turned professional ball parks into playgrounds. When he played baseball he made it look like me and my friends playing on the dirt fields around the corner from our home. They called him “Kid” for good reason. When you watched Mays play, you quickly realized that there was nothing on the baseball field that he couldn’t do. Whether it was run, catch, hit, or throw when Mays was in his prime he was the best at it all.  Admittedly, I didn’t get to see him in person (his prime was a little before my time), but I have seen the films and looked at the stats, read books, and listened to commentaries of eye witnesses. The testimony of them all is still the same – “That Giant Kid is great!”

Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player of all time. And he would be my favorite player of all time, except for one other person. It is difficult to imagine that I would have a favorite player besides Mays, but Jackie Robinson gets top billing in my book. Without Jackie, there is no Willie.

By now everyone should know the story of Jackie Robinson. He was the first African-American baseball player in the Major Leagues in the modern era. He was a supreme athlete. An all-american football and track star at UCLA. Robinson was the first person ever to earn varsity letters at UCLA for four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball.  And though he stood out in all of them, baseball was actually his worst sport. Yet, he would go on to be the  Rookie of the Year (1947) and National League Most Valuable Player (1949).

Robinson didn’t have the natural giftedness of Mays. He wasn’t groomed by his father from an early age to be the greatest baseball player in the world, like Mays was. Robinson didn’t have a Jackie Robinson like Mays did. What Jackie endured, he endured often times alone. What Jackie did have, however, was true courage, intestinal fortitude, and an integrity that was only matched by a fire to succeed. Jackie Robinson is my favorite baseball player because he is more than a baseball player. He is truly an American hero. Willie Mays has the greater stats and awards, and well he should. No one ever played the game better.  But Jackie has first place in my book. No stats will ever measure what he meant to this country. No award can ever truly say the difference he made to baseball and the world. Thank you, Mr. Robinson.

If you’re interested in two really outstanding biographies on Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, check out Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirsch and Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad.  Until then, to wet your appetites, check out these clips:

Say Hey! Say Willie!

(In the last scene of the video, Willie Mays slides in safe at home for an inside-the-park homerun, and Jackie Robinson comes in from third base to argue the call with the umpire – Awesome!)

Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?

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